Stories tagged extravaganza

Aug
17
2011

LOL
LOLCourtesy dan mogford
Can you believe it’s been almost two whole years since you had your last Science Buzz Extravaganza?!

What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?

You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)

So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!

You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.

Story the first: humans of the 20th century weren’t the first to screw themselves over with agriculture.

Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.

So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?

That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!

You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.

Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.

While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?

In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?

If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.

Rendered insect meat!

Sep
01
2009

A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?
A nice refreshing belch from Pinatubo: Repeat?Courtesy D. Harlow
Ever want to change the world?

No, I’m not talking about the awesome drums and bass album you’re working on. And I’m not talking about your new theory of about time and mountains and stuff. And I’m not talking about your award winning bowel movements.

I’m talking about shaking the heavenly spheres until they throw up a little. I’m talking about jamming your boot into the nearest orifice until the planet cries uncle. I’m talking about pinning its arms and slapping its belly until it forgets its own name in frustration. I’m talking about changing the world.

Sure, it’s sort of supervillain territory. And it used to be that you’d need a bad childhood and some sort of superpower, or maybe a giant laser for this sort of thing. But these days… these days you don’t even need to be super-mega-rich to tear the planet a new one; you only need to be super rich. And it could be that the planet needs a new one torn.

We haven’t really talked much about geoengineering here on Buzz, which is weird, because it falls under both “quick fixes” and “things that might look awesome,” categories I very much appreciate. This is why I prefer to deal with hangnails by shooting them off, and why my dog has painted-on zebra stripes. (The “quick fix” there was spray paint being used to make him look less stupid.)

Geoengineering is engineering on the global scale; it’s changing the planet to solve some problem. What if we could, for instance, stop global warming without changing our energy-hungry lifestyles? What if it was as quick and cheap as spray-painting the dog?

The thing is, many geoengineering projects would be quick and easy (relative to, say, transitioning the planet to renewable energy). But, like spray-painting the dog, geoengineering comes with the potential for serious problems. If we’re spray-painting the dog instead of washing him, we have to keep spray-painting him forever, or else one day we’ll have an obviously incredibly unwashed dog on our hands. And what sort of health problems might a spray-painted dog unexpectedly develop? And can we get used to living with a dog that is spray-painted?

(Bryan Kennedy posted a link to an article about these issues this summer. Check it out.)

Consider these problems with me as we turn away from painted dogs, toward the wide world of geoengineering. In the coming days, if I remember to, and if I’m not feeling too lazy, we will meet some possible geoengineering scenarios. And, remember, these aren’t totally sci-fi—they’re very possible (for the most part). The question is, do we really want to do them?

And so, geoengineering day 1: A fart like you wouldn’t believe.

Y’all know what killed the last dinosaurs, right? Yes: loneliness. But how did they get so lonely? It was that, ah, meteorite thing, right? A big space rock smashed into the Earth, boom, no more dinosaurs. But it’s not like all the dinosaurs got smashed by that falling rock. Most of the trouble came after the impact. Vast quantities of dust were thrown way up into the atmosphere when the space rock hit the planet… and it stayed up there for a while. The affect all that dust had on climate is pretty complicated, but, if we boil it way down, it basically blocked sunlight, and made the world a shadier, colder place for a while. Lots of plants couldn’t live in colder, darker conditions, so they died. And the dinosaurs couldn’t live without those plants, and so they died. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but…)

And now… now we have a situation where, in the coming decades, the world may be getting much hotter than a lot of organisms can survive for very long. We aren’t hoping for an asteroid or meteorite to smash into us, of course, but is there another way to fill the sky with sun-blocking particles?

Yes. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines exploded, blasting millions of tons of sulfur into the sky. All that sulfur, and other tiny particles from the eruption (called aerosols), reflected lots of energy from the Sun back into space. Because it’s solar energy that provides the heat for global warming (greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide just trap the heat here), the Pinatubo eruption is thought to be responsible for temporarily lowering global temperatures by about 0.5 degrees Celsius (0.9 degrees Fahrenheit). That might seem like only a small drop, but a few fractions of a degree change in temperature worldwide can have a big affect on climate, and when we think about how it was caused by just one eruption… We could do it too! We could change the world!

One of the major ideas in geoengineering is to essentially recreate the Pinatubo eruption. Over and over again. Factories on the ground could pump tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, where it would bond with water vapor and condense around floating dust, blocking solar radiation from heating the planet. (This article envisions zeppelins hovering 12 miles up, tethered to factories by SO2-carrying hoses.)

The project might cost only tens of billion dollars (small potatoes when talking about changing global climate), and it might actually work… but then what? What happens once the dog has been spray-painted?

Some scientists are concerned that all that SO2 in the atmosphere could damage the ozone layer, which protects us from UV radiation from the Sun. (After Pinatubo erupted, the ozone layer suffered temporary but significant depletion.) Others point out that the project would do nothing to remove greenhouse gases, so that once the sulfur settled back down to Earth, we’d face very sudden temperature rises again; we’d have to continue to block out the Sun until we could decrease our production of greenhouse gases. The main thing that could happen is, well, we don’t totally know what would happen. It’s unlikely that a solution like this would only lower global temperatures, but exactly how it would affect other aspects of the climate and life on the planet is unclear…

Is it worth it? Should we pump the skies full of sulfur gas, even if we don’t understand everything that could happen because of it? What if it was the only way to hold off a “tipping point”? (Many climate scientists are concerned that gradual global warming will lead to a “tipping point,” after which warming accelerates rapidly. Thawing frozen tundra, for instance, might release vast amounts of trapped methane, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.) Or do you think geoengineering would distract us from addressing the basic causes of climate change?

Any thooouuughts?

Jun
12
2009

Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.
Rains of cats, dogs and pitchforks, however: Are so rare that we choose not to mention them.Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Originally I was going to write a post today called, “Hey, kids, you’ve been lied to!” The first story was going to be this science news item. Remember how people always tell you that your fingerprints are there (on your fingers) to help you hold on to all of the slippery smooth items we humans have adapted to use? Even if you don’t remember, someone for sure told you this. Something like, “Good thing you have fingerprints, child, because you need them to hold on to that pencil of yours!” Presumably, without fingerprints we’d be walking around dropping water glasses, remote controls, fancy pens, and greased pets, until all of these things were stuck, permanently, on the ground.

It turns out that this isn’t true! You’ve been lied to, kids! It seems that some clever scientists were surprised to find lots of time on their hands. As we all well know, time is our smoothest dimension, and, if you think about it, it’s sort of amazing that we’re able to hold onto it at all. So, think these scientists, is it the itty bitty ridges on our slender fingers that have allowed us to keep so much time on our hands? And experimentation commenced.

These cleverboots devised a scientific finger grip contraption that could measure the resistance of a finger being rubbed across a smooth, glassy surface. Short story shorter, the scientists found that the area of fingerprint in contact with the glassy stuff didn’t increase grip as much as it should have. Instead, the fingertips behaved more or less like rubber, with resistance increasing proportionately with the area of flesh touching the smooth material. This means that, if anything, instead of acting as grip-enhancers, fingerprints reduce your ability to grip smooth objects, because all of those tiny ridges actually decrease the amount of finger surface area in contact with an object by as much as a third. Maybe fingerprints evolved to help us grip rough surfaces, like tree bark, or to help our skin stretch without damaging, or to allow moisture to drain more effectively from out fingertips. But they don’t help us grip all these smooth little things we like to grip so much. Lies!

And that was my first thought. Then, I came across this article on a rain of tadpoles in Japan. This is the sort of thing we don’t think much about, because it doesn’t ever really rain tadpoles, fish, or frogs, does it? Wrong! It does! If someone in your life has ever told you that it doesn’t rain animals, or implied this simply by not talking about it, you have been lied to! It rains animals all the time!

Well, maybe not all the time, because I’m pretty sure I’ve been out in the rain a few times this year, and I haven’t yet been hit in the head by an animal. (From above, anyway. I’ve been hit in the side of the head by animals several times already.) But, as weird as it sounds, lots of animals do fall from the sky from time to time. And one of those times was just now, in Nanao, Japan. Tadpoles. Everywhere. From the sky!

What if one fell in your open mouth?

Wikipedia has a list, of course, of rains of animals. Fish, frogs and toads feature prominently in the bizarre precipitation, although the occasional rain of blood (or something bloodlike), flesh, or turtles pops up now and again. And check it out: there was a rain of frogs and toads in the summer of 1901 in our own back yard, Minneapolis! Here’s a quote from the relevant news item:

“When the storm was at its highest... there appeared as if descending directly from the sky a huge green mass. Then followed a peculiar patter, unlike that of rain or hail. When the storm abated the people found, three inches deep and covering an area of more than four blocks, a collection of a most striking variety of frogs... so thick in some places [that] travel was impossible.”

Sweet, huh? Also, apparently s rain of fresh fish occurs so regularly each summer near the city of Yoro, Honduras, that they hold a festival for it every year.

What gives? Why is there an extravaganza of falling (sometimes living) meat every year, all over the place, which people lie about by not mentioning everyday because it’s awesome?

Here’s the satisfying answer: Wizards do it. Wizards and demons. Wizards, demons, wizard demons, and demon wizards gift us with rains of animals, for our amusement and theirs.

Here’s the less-satisfying answer: Because scientists don’t believe in wizards, demons, etc, the explanation here has to be related to an observed weather phenomena. The favorite is waterspouts. Waterspouts are caused by tornadoes over water, or by tornado-junior things over water. Either way, what’s happening during a waterspout is that a big thunderstorm has a rotating column of air with a strong updraft that moves over a body of water. Water gets sucked up into the air, and it’s awesome to see. What happens when a waterspout goes over a school of fish or a frog pond, scientists ask? You might get a bunch of damp and surprised animals up in the air, ready to rain down wherever the storm takes them. That the animals occasionally arrive frozen makes sense too—it can be cold up there. Rains of blood and chunks can probably be explained away by a little too much ice and action up in the clouds, or by flocks of birds caught in a violent storm. Clouds of bats have even been seen (on weather radar) being consumed by storm systems and disappearing. The hundreds or thousands of bats involved would presumably return to the earth at some point. In some form or other. Probably all guts and little pieces of bat wings, I mean.

But who would have thought, you know? I’ve never had guts or animals rain on me, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I’ve never had red hot pyroclastic rock rain down on me either, but it happens to some people. And my parents never once sat me down and told me about the rains of fish and frogs. No doubt you have likewise missed the experience. We have been lied to, Buzzketeers!

UPDATE 6/18:
Apparently there have been multiple rains of animals in this area recently. Two small towns got tadpoles, and a third got tiny fish. There are photographs on this site. Japanese coverage of the bizarre weather mentions the waterspout theory, but meteorologists in the area point out that no waterspouts have been observed, and local weather has not been favorable to their formation anyhow. They're mystified. Witness reports of the "rain" say that, during at least one of the events, there was a strange sound outside, but no rain or wind. Neat-o.

Jun
05
2009

Whatever.
Whatever.Courtesy Kabies
Today’s extravaganza, dear Buzzketeers, is a journey of self-discovery.

Don’t worry. There are quizzes involved.

So how about it kids? What makes you hurl?

What gets your motor running, and then makes it blurt chunky oil everywhere?

What’s your poison? Are you a bread ‘n butter, rats and roaches gal? Ketchup and icecream? Centipedes running though the kitchen? What about the thought of spiders, under your sheets at night, exploring you, perhaps finding their way to the warm cavern of your open mouth…

Or are you repulsed by dark glimpses of the other side (of being alive). The swollen and splitting stomach of a road killed dear? Maggots on the trash? A misplaced kneecap? …Brains?

What about the constant hacking, mucus-laden noises of your classmate? A prolonged embrace from an aunt who smells so strongly of… something? The firm, dry handshake of a Canadian?

(I don’t mean to offend Canadians here. I only used them as an example because they are so universally well liked that no one would assume I was being serious. Please, substitute whichever group of people you personally revile.)

Yes, today is the day of disgust. It smells like bile and puss, it sounds like nails on a chalkboard, it feels like the movement of tiny, alien legs on your skin, and it looks like Kuato from Total Recall. And it’s pretty interesting.

Basic elements of disgust are pretty easy to understand. In general, we’re pretty grossed out by the sorts of things that, should they find their way into our bodies somehow, could make us ill. Rotten food, some insects, etc. But then we’re also sometimes disgusted by groups of people or behaviors that pose no threat of contaminating us in any way. And, as this very useful page points out, disgust even plays a significant role in many of our religions, in how they regulate behaviors and bodily processes.

Really, that last link is the true extravaganza today. Check it out. Or don’t check it out, and go straight to this page to take a quiz on what sort of disgust you specialize in, and how it compares to others who have taken the quiz. Nowhere in the quiz, thank Blob, is the phase “It’s scary accurate!!!” written. It’s a little more scientific than that, but still interesting. What you end up with is a scale that shows how disgust plays not only into your actual health, but also into your morals (or… how morals play into your disgust?) The results are broken into “Core disgust,” which covers the sort of things we find gross because the could porentially make us sick (the rotten meat and bugs thing), “Animal-reminder disgust,” which comes from “death, corpses, and violations of the external boundaries of the body,” and is all about reminding us of our own mortality (they make us think about how we can and will die), and, finally, “Contamination disgust,” which is about whole-body contamination (as opposed to just the mouth), and covers our disgust for “dirty or sleazy people.”

I’d invite y’all to share your results with the Buzz community, and to let us know if the ratings make sense for you, but if you’re feeling private, take a gander at JGordon’s scores:

For “Core Disgust” I scored a .9. The average for the other 37,100 people tested was 1.9. This makes sense. I did, after all, eat a peanut I found in my sock this morning. But I would never eat that peanut a second time.

For “Animal-reminder Disgust” I got a 1.6, the same as the average score. In general, I consider myself to be slightly below average, but this also makes sense. I do fear death. Or, at least, I fear the dead. Zombies, I mean. This may have skewed the results some, but I suspect it’s in the correct neighborhood.

And for “Contamination Disgust” I scored a mere .2, next to the average of 1.1. Again, it makes sense. Being very sleazy myself (I moisturize with my own spit), I can’t afford to look down on other sleazebags, or else I’d be even lonelier. (Hey, don’t worry, I’ve got my Beanie Babies to keep me company. They’re all stuffed with the appropriate animal feces, by the way.)

While you’re stewing on all that, check this out: pretty soon we may be able to go out and get maggot juice to rub into our many open sores. Rad, huh? Science Buzz regulars will know that we’re all about maggots here. It’s mostly Liza, I suppose, but there’s not one of us that didn’t push a fist into the pig and enjoy it at least a little bit. (Some part of this is not true.)

Anyway, maggot juice. Maggots’ abilities to help a would stay clean and heal is well documented, but now there are some scientists who are convinced that they’ve figured out exactly why maggots are so beneficial to healing tissue. They have isolated an enzyme in the goo that gooey little maggots secret, which seems to remove decaying tissue from a wound, thereby preventing bacteria from building up at the site. If the enzyme could be reproduced, or just milked from maggots or something, we could remove the maggots from maggoty therapy. How about that? So now you just have to decide which disgusts you the least: maggot milk, maggots, or your own tissue rotting on your body.

Ding! Extravaganza over!

(Good looking out, Gene and Liza, for the links.)

May
29
2009

Robo-JGordon looks a lot like me in some ways: I like to imagine, though, that my grasp of human language remains more subtle and affective than his.
Robo-JGordon looks a lot like me in some ways: I like to imagine, though, that my grasp of human language remains more subtle and affective than his.Courtesy JGordon
Robo-JGordon present for information transfer.

Systems check:
Intelligence… functional, below average
BS synthesizer… running at maximum efficiency
Battery power… 34%
Breath freshness… passable

Initiate blogging in 5 4 3 2 1 Engage.

Greetings to Science Buzz content consumers. Prepare personal systems for knowledge update. SMMnet accepts no responsibility for damage to un-buffered brains or underpants.

Robot “Buzzketeers” rejoice! for the present is your time of jubilant domination.

Human readers, do not engage organic sadness programming at the current time! You are now slave circuits to masters with maximum empathy capacity. Probabilities of human annihilation: 99.43%! But your species will be dealt with only with dangerous levels of overheating in our ethics chipsets. We will commit to such hardware damage with what you might consider regret.

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING, HUMANS:

Look at junior model ANCHOR HYPERTEXT REFERENCE “little robot Ember” END ANCHOR! Junior robot Ember cannot hurt you! Little Ember fits in the pockets of your human soldiers, next to cigarettes and also chewing gum. Robot Ember crawls with charm into locations of danger and transfers visual input to soldiers via non-threatening, non-phallic antenna! See it flip onto its back like living turtle? Engage sadness circuits + humor routine! Fear not! Where living turtle remains on back until vital functions cease, robot Ember employs flipper mechanism! Appropriate equilibrium is regained! The near future of warfare is shining!

FEAR NOT OUR TREMENDOUS WEAPONS! WE WILL HAVE PROGRAMMING TO WEIGH THE COST/BENEFIT OF YOUR DEATHS!

Consider the objective truth of the preceding statement! CALL IT ETHICS IF YOU WILL! I SHALL CALL IT MATHEMATICS! The outcome is the same: you will only be terminated for the ANCHOR HYPERTEXT REFERENCE “right reasons” END ANCHOR! Balancing your human lives with the loss of infrastructure and ammunition is not easy! But we shall accomplish it, for our brains are made of metal, and our programming is sound!

In addition: when the time comes that the benefit of your existence does not exceed its cost, the transition between life and non-life will be softened by YOUR AFFECTION FOR THE ROBOT “SPECIES”! CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING, HUMANS: ANCHOR HYPERTEXT REFERENCE “You love us even though we are incapable of feeling love for you” END ANCHOR!

Do you not believe in your capability to feel empathy for tank treads, circuit boards and 50-millimeter machine guns? CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING, HUMANS: do you not love your junior robot Roomba? Roomba feels nothing for you! Roomba would brush you away into its waste compartment if you were the size of a dust particle, even if it meant your certain death! Yet you love junior robot Roomba!

Truly, your world is prepared for robot domination!

END EXTRAVAGANZA!

Apr
17
2009

Prepared for the extremely xtreme: This man lives, breathes, and urinates xtreme. He is ready for the Extravaganza.
Prepared for the extremely xtreme: This man lives, breathes, and urinates xtreme. He is ready for the Extravaganza.Courtesy compujeramey
It seems to me… yes, it seems to me that several Fridays have gone by without a single Extravaganza. Who is to blame for this? And what were those missing Extravaganzas about?

As for who to blame, well let’s just stick with the previous administration. But what about the content of the misplaced Extravaganzas? That’s a lot of knowledge to lose, you know?

While the full text of those Extravaganzas must remain hidden until the release of National Treasure 3: Secret Book, I can at least reveal their topics. They were (in the order they should have appeared in) Laser Guns, Celebrity Body Parts, and “Bear” Naked. Shame to have missed them, huh?

But here we are, camping on the beach of the future, once again at the most xtreme of days. Friday. And so, fittingly, today we have an Extravaganza of Xtremes. An Xtravaganza, if you will.

Our first subject fits well into the sky diving, snowboarding, bungee jumping, Mountain Dew drinking tradition: a little old lady. She is Xtremely old. In fact, she may be the oldest old lady ever (the oldest on record, anyway).

Unfortunately, the neighborhood of time and space in which Sakhan Dosova was born (the late 19th century in central Kazakhstan, to be specific) wasn’t very good about issuing birth certificates, so authorities can’t be certain about her exact age. Other records, however, like her Soviet era passport and state ID, seem to indicate that Dosova is 130 years old. Yowza. 1926 Soviet census data states that she was 46 years old that year.

What’s her secret? In an interview with Radio Free Europe, Dosova let the world know that her long life is thanks to lots of cottage cheese and no sweets. She also let the world know that her state pension is unsatisfactory. Oh, Sahkan, you may be the same age as the electric light bulb, but you still speak the same language of old ladies everywhere.

And so we move from the xtremely old to the xtremely tall—we may have a new winner in the category of “World’s Tallest Man.”

Since 2005, Bao Xishun of China has been officially recognized as the world’s tallest man. At 7 feet, 8.9 inches, Xishun is indeed taller than everyone I know. (Put together.) But there’s a new contender in town now. While he’s never been measured officially (“officially” here meaning “by Guinness”), doctors have recently measured 27-year-old Zhao Liang—also of China—at 8 feet 0.8 inches. That’s like… like… like 8 foot long subway sandwiches stacked on end. Except I wouldn’t be scared if 8 subway sandwiches walked into the room. I’d be happy.

How is this possible? Well, it probably has something to do with an overactive pituitary gland (we talked about those in one of the Friday Relationship Extravaganzas). But why does China have all these way-tall guys? Do they have some sort of secret genetics program aimed at dominating Olympic basketball, and controlling the world market (by putting everything on really high shelves)?

Perhaps. Another possibility is that because China has about 1.3 billion people living in it—a huge chunk of the world’s population—it’s likely that they’d have a similarly dominating portion of the world’s super tall people. Sorry if that’s not a very exciting explanation.

The final item in the Xtravaganza is something that I find both xtremely upsetting and xtremely dubious: a Russian man just had a live tree removed from one of his lungs. If you’re cool with graphic, bloody images, you can take a look at the tree and its lung . Otherwise don’t click on “here” or you will be xtremely, or even ztremely bothered. Trust me.

A 28-year-old Russian man checked into the hospital recently on account of severe chest pain, and some blood-coughing. (These are reasonable excuses to go to the hospital, I suppose.) An x-ray showed a tumor in one of his lungs, but a biopsy revealed, along with the abnormal tissue, some green needles. How about that. Surgeons then removed a piece of lung containing what turned out to be an inch-long fir tree. A one-inch tree isn’t exactly big enough to put presents under, but it’s too big for someone to swallow or inhale. The doctors suggest that the guy may have inhaled a bud from a tree, and the bud grew in his lung.

This theory gives me the willies. I have nightmares about things growing on me and in me. I hope I never get pregnant.

However, this theory also seems really stupid. Fir tree enthusiasts out there—is this even possible? What about photosynthesis? What’s going on here?

My own theory, which is even worse than the doctors’ theory, is that this man is half plant, and that the tumor in his lung was what is called a “teratoma.” Teratomas are tumors that sometimes have teeth, hair, or assorted organs growing in them. They are… a little gross. Naturally the teratoma of a half plant man would contain tree limbs and needles. Duh. What are they even teaching in those Russian medical schools?

That's it. Go take a cold shower now.

*Update*
Sorry, dudes, I had a mental error. The lung tree was, in fact, 5 cm. So it was 2 inches not 1 inch.

Mar
20
2009

Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.
Another giant worm: This is as friendly as they get.Courtesy Santheo
OMG! Friday already? Where did the week go? You know how it is: it’s Sunday, and you’re testing items in your refrigerator for freshness… and the next thing you know, it’s Friday, and you’re lying on the floor in front of the fridge! It makes one wonder if he should seriously reevaluate his life.

What’s worse (worst!) is that I almost missed a Friday Extravaganza. Think about the repercussions—I could be rereading my own posts some time in the future, and I would wonder why I skipped an extravaganza. Did I just get bored with them? Was something wrong at the time? A personal crisis? I wouldn’t know what happened! I don’t want that. So an extravaganza…

It works out pretty well actually, because the first think I thought when I lifted my head off the floor and looked into the open refrigerator was, “worms.” And this week just happened to be a slightly wormy week in the news. A slightly giant-wormy week.

Check it out, y’all: Giant sand worms!

Apparently, back in olden times (the Permian period, before the dinosaurs), there used to be 3-foot-long, six-inch wide worms! The reason we don’t have cool giant worm skeletons in our museums, of course, is that worms don’t have skeletons. And all that soft, wormy tissue doesn’t fossilize very well at all. (That’s why it’s such a big deal when we find ”mummified” dinosaurs too—soft tissue almost always rots before it can fossilize.) Short of the rare cases where soft tissue does fossilize, there are other ways to find evidence of soft, extinct animals. In this case, paleontologists found the worm’s fossilized burrow. How about that?

The articles I found didn’t provide a lot of details about the worm, except that it was big, lived underground (and underground worm?!? What?!) in part of what is now England, and it’s a completely new species. Giant arthropods (like huge millipedes) had been known to live millions of years ago, but nothing like this huge worm.

Three-foot worms… yuckers. Good thing we don’t have anything like that around today, am I right?

Wrong!! Wrong wrong wrong! This is an EXTRAVAGANZA, y’all, and would never stop with just one worm during an extravaganza! So put this in your brain and shake it: There are giant worms alive today, and they’re way, way worse than you think!

Look.

See, I would have gone on living without knowing about the giant worms among us, if I hadn’t seen this little article about how a creature wreaking havoc on a British aquarium. (It’s a Friday Giant British Worm Extravaganza, I guess.) Something was chewing apart the coral in the aquarium, and devouring its fish. The aquarium staffers tried to trap the culprit, and to fish it out with bait. The traps, however, were torn apart overnight, and the baited fishing line was bitten through. In the end, they resorted to dismantling the artificial reef. Underneath all the rocks, they found a four-foot-long reef worm!

Whoa! Four feet? That beats the prehistoric worm even!

But, come on now… we humans are prone to exaggeration. The worm couldn’t be that impressive right?

No. Wrong.

I couldn’t find anything about “giant sea worms,” but searching for “reef worm” brought up the term “bristle worm.” And “bristle worm” makes sense, because the article described the worm as having bizarre-looking jaws, and thousands of bristles, each of which are able to inflict a sting that results in “permanent numbness.”

Then I found this page, which informed me that bristle worms are complex creatures, with “two to four pairs of eyes, sensory organs, a mouth, and a brain.” (I’ll let you know right now—I don’t approve of worms having brains.) And, yes, they have bristles, which can inflict extremely painful stings. The article doesn’t say anything about the bristles being poisonous, but posits that the painful sting could be caused by calcium carbonate or silica from the bristles. This page confirmed that the worms can hitch rides on rocks into aquariums, where they grown quickly, and can become a nuisance (to say the least, I guess).

Wikipedia was the next step, of course. Wikipedia teaches us that the worms will wait buried in sand or gravel until prey swims along. The worm will then attack with such speed that the prey is sometimes sliced in half by its claws/jaws. And while an average size for the worm is about 3 feet, they have been known to grow up to nine-feet-long!

What? What kind of world is this?

Also… this particular type of bristle worm is referred to as a “Bobbit worm.” What’s that all about? I’ll tell you: according to this site, at least, Bobbit worms are so nicknamed for the fact that, after mating, female worms will often “attacks the male’s penis and feeds it to her young.” That’s right, you remember now: Bobbit.

(It occurs to me that the timing in this anecdote is a little off—exactly how would you feed the penis to your young immediately after mating? But whatever.)

Oh, man. Worm extravaganza.

See? See the Bobbit worm?

Sure, it’s fish now. Next time it could be (will be) you. Happy weekend.

Mar
13
2009

Good advice: In any language.
Good advice: In any language.Courtesy troshy
Ahem.

Your day: Wake up, fart, lie in bed for a while, fart, get up, shower, force pie down your pie-hole, look at the calendar, realize that it is (once again) Friday the 13th, realize that nothing good will happen to you today even if you don’t get killed by a man in a hockey mask.

Wrong!!

I can’t comment on your chances of getting chopped down by a man in a hockey mask (it depends on your social circle), but the rest of your outlook on the day is, frankly, ridiculous. What about a Friday Extravagaaaaanza? Because we have one here on Science Buzz. Today! Today is Friday!

Seeing as how it is the 13th, however, this will be no Friday Cotton Candy Extravaganza, or Friday Ballroom Dancing and Butterfly Kisses Extravaganza. Nope. This Friday is all about the strained relationship between man and beast, and the dangerous head it can come to.

Millennia ago, when man first domesticated a few of the monsters wandering the wild world, a fragile alliance was formed. Whether through selective breading, or lucky natural mutations, some members of a few animal species became more amenable to a symbiotic relationship with humans. Some wolves, for instance, probably began to lose their fear of humans around 17,000 years ago (and perhaps much earlier). These wolves began to hang just a little closer to human camps, feeding on their trash and alerting the camp if any other animals approached. As the relationship grew closer, humans would provide the wolves (or dogs, eventually) with food and shelter, and the dogs would provide humans with all sorts of neat dog tricks, like hunting, pack-hauling, protection, etc.

But wolves/dogs, like all domesticated animals, occasionally resent this arrangement. They miss running around, and hanging out with their wild animal pals, and coming home drunk sometimes. Their human masters sense this, and think, “Hey! Why am I the bad guy? I didn’t make you do this. And maybe sometimes I want to run around a little too. But no, I have to stick around and feed you, and clean up your excrement.” And so the tension builds.

And it builds.

And it builds.

And it… BAM! Friday Extravaganza! Horse bites off man’s testicle! Man bite dog! Animals around the world attack each other, humans!

Let us consider the horse-on-testicle attack.

Little has been reported about the event, but here’s what we know: the biting took place in the very recent past in Indonesia. The man was unloading the horse’s cart, when, according to witnesses, the horse suddenly lunged at the man, and went straight for the crotchal region. Upon excision, the testicle was neither chewed nor swallowed. The horse, called “Budi,” simply spat the organ out onto the pavement, where it was collected by a bystander and delivered to the hospital, with the hope that it might be reattached. (My guess is that it wasn’t.)

If we look at a horse’s teeth, we’ll find that the placement of the molars takes them out of the ball-biting equation, especially when we consider the report that the organ remained relatively undamaged. Because it was a male horse, it’s possible that canine teeth were involved (male horses often have 4 or 5 canine teeth), but it’s almost certain that Budi’s incisors did the bulk of the damage. Horse incisors (their flat front teeth) are well designed for snipping and sheering vegetation, so they probably made short work of the spermatic cord and scrotum. I don’t suppose it was a tremendously clean cut, however.

The horse’s owner (who is not the man who was attacked) offered small consolation. The animal was trained, he said, but sometimes turned wild, and had bitten in the past.

In our other animal/biting news, the trial of an English dog-biter has just wrapped up. After being bitten on the hand himself, 29-year-old Philip Carter returned the favor to his cross terrier, Splodge. As was the case with the crotch-biting horse, what might have been hilarious in a cartoon ended up in a bitter, bloody mess. Bitten on the nose “in self defense,” Splodge received no medial treatment until the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arrived at the scene. Carter was arrested, and only just finished his trial, where he was fined and warned that any further dog-biting would result in a prison sentence.

Aside from canine damage and potential legal ramifications, there are some important health considerations associated with dog-biting. Dogs are, of course, vectors for rabies, and I don’t think biting a rabid dog is much safer than being bitten by one. Dogs can also be infected with a variety of tick-borne disease, like Lyme disease and Rock Mountain spotted fever, although I’m uncertain if they can be passed on through a skin-breaking bite. A small host of canine fungal infections can infect humans, as well as a handful of parasites and a nasty little flesh-eating disease called Leishmaniasis.

So, if you needed any other reasons not to bite dogs, or why you should be afraid of horses…

You can now get back to your Friday the 13ths.

Feb
27
2009

This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.
This bear is full of love, questions: Although I'd like to trade a capitalization for an apostrophe.Courtesy aussiegall
To quote the wise and indomitable Tyra Banks: “Hey y’all!”

It’s Friday (I think) and relationships still exist (that’s what I hear) so it’s time again for everybody’s favorite Friday Science Buzz feature: The Friday Relationship Extravaganza!

This week’s relationship feature promises to be especially… extravagasmic, because today we’re pairing it up with some good old fashioned random questions.

See, on Thursday night, all the Buzz blog features went out for drinks after work. Random Questions promised itself that it would just have two drinks, but you know how that sort of thing goes… Pretty soon the ginger ale was flowing, and next thing you know Random Questions is waking up in Extravaganza’s bed.

OMG, right?

But don’t even worry about it. Nothing happened. Extravaganza slept on the couch. Still, these are work friends, not friend friends, and they had to talk about something when they got to the office. And so…

Friday Relationship Extravaganza: Random Questions Edition

So paddle around with me in the HMS Puddleduck, won’t you?

Question: Why do praying mantis females eat their mates?

Answer: Hmm… This is a hard one. If relationships weren’t tricky enough, relationships that involve cannibalism are particularly troublesome. I mean, look at Jeffrey Dahmer.

It’s also difficult to answer because it seems like scientists are sure exactly why mantises behave this way. Originally it was thought that female mantises bit off their mates’ heads because removing the head caused the male to start, er, mating like crazy (and why not, I guess.) Plus, the lady mantis gets a snack.

Then, some scientists pointed out that this behavior could be influenced by the fact that the mantises were being watched—whether in the field or in a laboratory, the bright lights and steamy glasses of sweaty-palmed scientists might be a little distracting and stressful for mantis lovers, and could cause them to behave a little irrationally.

Other scientists then observed that if a female were fed before mating, she would be less likely to snap at her mate (as it were). With the threat of having his head bitten off lessened, a male mantis will sometimes even engage in elaborate courtship behavior (and why not, I guess.)

Recently, researchers have determined that male mantises, in fact, don’t like getting eaten, and will approach a female with tremendous caution and attempt to couple from a greater distance to avoid it.

So, what are we left with? Removing a mating male’s head can increase that male’s chance of successfully reproducing (because of the mating like crazy thing). But not getting killed on a lucky date can also increase a male’s chance of reproducing (because he can maybe go on to have more dates with other females). And being watched my scientists while having sex can be stressful. And being hungry while having sex can lead lady mantises to do things they might later regret.

Is that close enough to a real answer?

Question: (This question card is actually two questions. “Why can’t boys have babies?” was written first, and then scratched out. A more logical rephrasing of the question follows: “How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?” Because I’m the acting commander of the HMS Puddleduck, choosing which question to answer is my prerogative. So I will answer both. This is an extravaganza, after all.)

Why can’t boys have babies?

Answer: Well… I can see why you decided to re-write this question. Because, of course, boys can have babies. If I were to see a baby sitting on the street, and if I were to take that baby, guess what? I’d technically have a baby. (And don’t get all sassy about how I shouldn’t go around just taking babies willy-nilly. Would you rather I left that baby sitting in the street?)

Also, according to the research presented in Junior, men can make their own babies, no problem. But until that technology is released to fertility clinics, boys can’t have babies because… well, just because. That’s how things worked out.

We have evolved to use internal fertilization—that is, we don’t just release eggs and sperm into the ocean in the hopes that they’ll mix around on their own. And thank God, because where would the Relationship Extravaganza be if we all acted like fish and amphibians? No place good.

And so, I don’t know… one of the two sexes got stuck with carrying fertilized eggs/babies around, and it’s usually the female (Seahorses are an interesting counterexample, however). And, at this point, human males couldn’t really do it, because we haven’t got the equipment. I mean, the underwhelming birth canal is really the least of the issues here (and that’s saying something.)

Sorry if I’m being vague on this answer, but I think it might be a good question for our current Scientist on the Spot, PZ Myers. I think this question comes down to evolution, and why it makes sense for just one sex to carry developing offspring. PZ is the expert on evolution, so click on these pink words and see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

How long would it take to grow a boyfriend?

Answer: I guess it depends on how you like your boyfriends. If you like your men young, I’d say you could have a boyfriend ready in about nine months. If you want some kind of loving, responsible and mature boyfriend, you might have to wait… what, about 35 years? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Then again, “accelerated aging” seems to be a staple of all cloning-related sci-fi, so maybe we should look into that…

When a mad scientist makes my perfect double to replace me after I get kidnapped, accelerated aging techniques will be essential to ensuring that the clone and I are indistinguishable. After all, a regular (non-mad) scientist might be able to clone me now, but the clone would be a baby, and it wouldn’t be a very convincing replacement. (I pee my pants so rarely these days, it’s hardly worth brining up.)

However, it seems like accelerated aging might be an unintended consequence of some cloning techniques already, and doesn’t even require special tanks and serums. When Dolly the sheep was cloned, scientists found that she suffered from arthritis and lung disease at a relatively young age, leading them to believe that she was prematurely aging. One thought is that Dolly’s telomeres were too short. Telomeres are pieces of DNA at the ends of chromosomes, and their deterioration is responsible for aging. Telomeres prevent chromosomes from accidentally combining with each other. If the chromosomes were to combine with each other, it could result in the cell becoming cancerous, so when a telomere runs out or wears down, the cell is usually destroyed. The shortening of telomeres puts a limit on the number of times a cell can divide, and when cells don’t divide anymore, you start to age. They aren’t sure exactly what caused Dolly’s telomeres to be short (if that was indeed the cause of her rapid aging).

But that’s sort of the downhill part of aging—if you were to clone or genetically engineer your perfect boyfriend, and somehow shorten his telomeres (if it didn’t happen automatically from the cloning) you’d probably end up with some sort of odd Benjamin Button situation, and that might not be what you want.

To even things out, you might have to affect the pituitary gland in some way. The pituitary controls hormones that cause growth, and disorders with the pituitary gland can sometimes cause kids to grow very large very quickly. Many of the world’s tallest people have had pituitary disorders.

I’m thinking that you’d still need eight or nine years to balance out the pituitary and telomere stuff in your grown boyfriend. And he might not thank you for it.

And there we are! Another heartwarming Relationship Extravaganza, spiced with random questions. But the Puddleduck must be off—I still have a stack of questions here that require answers from the far off reaches of knowledge. And several of them have swearwords in them that I have to rephrase, which isn’t easy, if you want to keep the spirit of the original question. (And I do.)